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El Chapo key witness features now in police official’s trial

Back on the stand, former cartel accountant "El Rey" described having stuffed briefcases and athletic bags with millions in cash to pay off the head of Mexico's federal police.

BROOKLYN (CN) — One of El Chapo’s main men dropped a bombshell in the 2018 trial that took down the notorious drug cartel leader: Members of the gang, he testified, were paying off major government officials, including the head of Mexico’s federal police force, Genaro García Luna. As the government now wraps up its case against García Luna, prosecutors called the same cooperating witness to the stand. 

Jesús Reynaldo Zambada García told jurors on Monday that he prepared millions of dollars to be handed over to García Luna. By paying off officials at multiple levels, Zambada said, the cartel grew to astronomical power, raking in between $2 billion and $3 billion each year in sales of cocaine. New York City was the most lucrative market in the United States. 

The witness, known as “El Rey,” is the brother of Ismael Zambada García, who co-led a faction of the Sinaloa cartel with the infamous, now-permanently jailed Joaquín Guzmán. He worked as an accountant for the cartel and controlled its operations at the Mexico City airport, its most lucrative and high-volume zone.

Wanting his brother shielded from police raids, the witness said that in late 2006, he packed $3 million into a briefcase and a gym bag and helped bring the money to García Luna at a now-closed restaurant in Mexico City called Champs Elysées. A lawyer working for the cartel later reported that García Luna had agreed to play ball and help the witness’s brother. 

“He was going to allow him to work as-is,” Zambada testified. 

Three weeks later at the same restaurant, Zambada said he paid an additional $2 million to García Luna in a similar manner and found himself surprised to be face-to-face with the top police official before excusing himself.

“I wasn’t interested in him knowing me,” Zambada, who used fake names to keep a low profile, said of the defendant. “I didn’t want him to know who I was.” 

García Luna served as secretary of public security, a cabinet-level position, under former President Felipe Calderon. The 54-year-old has pleaded not guilty to charges of cocaine distribution and conspiracy under a criminal enterprise, and of lying to immigration officials by failing to disclose those crimes on his U.S. citizenship application. 

On cross-examination Monday, his attorneys suggested that the prosecution was conflating government entities and naming operations that were not under García Luna’s control. Defense attorney César de Castro — who has argued that government witnesses are seeking revenge on his client for going after the drug trade — also elicited that Zambada was deeply involved in the cartel and dug up information on its targets to provide to sicarios, or hit men. 

Zambada was arrested in 2008 and pleaded guilty to multiple drug charges. He was released from prison in 2019 and is on supervised release. 

On Monday, he testified that, although García Luna would grant protection to his brother’s and El Chapo’s side of things, he had “more of a commitment” to Arturo Beltrán Leyva — a higher-up in the cocaine trafficking group who found himself at odds with El Chapo and ultimately led a rival ring. 

A possible explanation for that alliance was offered during earlier trial testimony: Beltrán Leyva had García Luna kidnapped after the official balked at taking sides in the Sinaloa split, according to a previous cooperating witness known as “El Conejo,” who described meeting with a furious Beltrán Leyva after the abduction. 

“He said he had just grabbed that son-of-a-bitch García Luna, and he was going to kill him,” Harold Mauricio Poveda-Ortega testified. “He was going to send his head out so people could see that nobody could take him for a fool.” 

García Luna confirmed Monday that he will not testify at trial. The government expects to rest its case this week and will be followed by a short defense case. Presiding is U.S. District Judge Brian M. Cogan. 

A minor hiccup came Monday as Cogan announced some jurors felt frustrated that not all of them had been paid for their time, and said the mishap could affect their decision at the end of the trial. One prosecutor called that notion concerning, but Cogan brushed it off. 

“I think they’re leveraging, right?” said the judge, eliciting a courtroom chuckle. During a break, Cogan assured jurors that “we’ll get this fixed” and reminded them that it was the court’s fault, and not either party’s, they had not yet been paid.

Categories:Criminal, Government, International, Trials

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